I think I mentioned that Laurel and I were going to the Utah Chocolate Show last Saturday. It was a lot of fun, but as far as I'm concerned the high point was a chocolate tasting with Matt Caputo.
If you love chocolate and live in the Salt Lake area, call Caputo's and find out when Matt is doing this class again. You'll learn why chocolates are not created equal and what to look for in fine chocolate.
If you can't take Matt's class, here's the short form: We're talking dark chocolate here: 70%-75% chocolate mass, with nothing else in it except sugar. We only tasted monobean chocolates, meaning that each was produced from a single cultivar of cacao bean and usually from a single plantation.
The most important fact I learned was that good dark chocolate is NOT bitter (OK, maybe a teensy bit). In fact, one of the defining points of really good chocolate is how much of the bitterness has been eliminated through breeding of the cacao trees and processing of the chocolate.
Forestero: hardy trees, plentiful beans, but quite bitter, with few nuances; about 80% of the chocolate available comes from Forestero beans
Criollo: hard to grow and therefore pricey, but the least bitter and filled with flavor nuances that vary from plantation to plantation; represents about 10% of chocolate sold worldwide
Trinitario: a hybrid of Forestero and Criollo; also represents about 10% of chocolate
Nacional: a sub-cultivar of Forestero which has evolved in Ecuador and produces a much better flavor of chocolate than original Forestero stock; a teensy percentage of chocolate production
Amano: America's best chocolate. We tried their Madagascar, which had a bright fruity undertones. A blend of criollo and trinitario cacao beans. Note: we also tried Scharffenberger, another American chocolate which Matt considers acceptable, but it is very bitter compared to the rest of these.
Pralus Djakarta: A smoky flavor with a slight leathery undertone (Laurel said "bandaids") from criollo and very high-grade trinitario beans. Any Pralus chocolate will be worth trying.
Domori Puertomar: Grown on cacao plants cloned Jurassic Park-style from a dried sample of an extinct criollo variety, then grafted onto existing trees. Be sure to smell this one before you take a bite--it's wonderful!
Domori Arriba: A little corner of Ecuador with its own microclimate produces the Nacional cultivar of cacao used in this chocolate. Some people detect a hint of banana in its taste. Be sure to let the flavors linger before moving on to the next chocolate; the banana flavor popped up for me as part of the "finish."
Amadei Chuao. From the best criollo cacao, grown only in Chuao, Venezuela. You can only buy it at a few places in the US, and apparently shipping is expensive if you buy from the website. So I would say memorize the list of places you can buy it and when you visit those cities, seek it out.
We bought Vosge's Mo's Bacon Bar to try at home. Er, it is unique . . .
Lindt Excellence 70% in the black and white lable (not the horizontally labelled candy bars) or El Rey.
If you have time, read the whole story. But again, the short version is that until about 2002, the cacao farmers of Chuao sold their entire crop of beans--the best in the world--to the French company Valrhona. When the Tessieri family, who own Amadei, tried to buy some, Valrhona wouldn't sell. In fact, they told the Tessieri that Italians were not evolved enough to make or appreciate good chocolate!
Not one to take an insult lying down, Alessio Tessieri went to Chuao. He offered the farmers three times what Valrhona had been paying them, promised to pay off all their debts, and agreed to establish a university where their kids could go for free. The farmers said, "OK." Apparently Italians can make good chocolate, because chocolate experts around the world have been giving the Amadei Chuao chocolate bar gold medals right and left.
The best time to taste chocolate is in the morning, 45 minutes after brushing your teeth but before you've eaten anything else
Americans like Hershey's and other food products labelled chocolate because we've been trained from childhood to like them, but they're often only 4% chocolate mass as compared to the 70% we tested in class. The rest of it is cocoa butter and other fats, flavorings such as vanillin which mask the bitterness of cheap cacao, and other additives.
That's why it's only dark chocolate that's considered health-promoting. There has to be a substantial percentage of chocolate mass to contain enough flavonoids to be useful.
If you smell chocolate and the first thing you notice is a vanilla scent, you're not getting much chocolate mass.
The "finish" of a chocolate taste can take up to half an hour to develop. Eating a bite every half hour instead of gobbling it down should have some health benefits, too.
About ten years ago I caught a sinusitis that left me completely without a sense of smell, and therefore no sense of taste. These senses returned gradually over about three months, but never recovered completely. For example, skunk and tuna both smell the same to me, although neither with their original smell. I can tell the difference because skunk makes my eyes water. I used to garden for scent, but now that lavender and patchouli smell the same to me (again, neither with their original scent), I don't. I can distinguish some of my dianthus and a few of my roses, and that's about it.
Sadly, one of the flavors that changed was chocolate. I used to love Hershey's and M&Ms, but now they taste really terrible to me, like refuse. I found that I could still enjoy European chocolate, although it didn't taste quite the same either.
Imagine my amazement at the chocolate tasting when I was able to detect all of the flavor nuances Matt mentioned! When we tasted the Domori Arriba, I asked if the reason we were tasting banana was because he told us we would. He said that he was told to expect banana when he first tasted it, and still had not been able to detect banana.
So now I know that while some things were broken permanently by that virus, some important things are left. I can still be a chocolate snob. If I want to pay $12 a bar for it.
Note: The cakes shown were entries in the wedding cake competition.